How to stand tall in the noise of these days

I am reluctant to speak into the din of these days.

An observation: we have reached a point where the two major sides in our debates are both driven by fear. Our president was elected for his projections of strength: for promising to protect us from bad hombre immigrants, from the globalized market, from terrorists, from the pace of social change. And now his policies have stricken terror into the hearts of his opponents—worried for themselves, for minority friends, worried about international relations or about creeping authoritarianism.

Though the cacophony appears to address many issues, in the end we are mostly responding to threats. We all perceive our particular threats to be very real, while dismissing others’ fears and blazing with disbelieving outrage when they dismiss ours. In our anger we cannot see how lonely this has made us. We feel the loneliness, but not consciously; the ache only fuels our outrage.


The Ph.D. in political science whom I keep on retainer who is my dear friend tells me that the biggest protests work, even when they’re not supposed to, even when no one expects it. So I will go to the protests. But I won’t be outraged; it’s not in my nature. With Paul I will proclaim that we all have gifts differing and I will thank God for those who do outrage well and righteously. I’ll be the one giving out water bottles, or crying. You’re probably not supposed to cry at a protest, but I’m mostly sure that’s what I’ll do.


What is in my nature is to passionately declare the extreme urgency of everyone sitting down and thinking some more. This is an unglamorous and unpopular vocation. Thinking sells best when paired with a vice—traditionally pipe tobacco or whiskey. Outrage is brighter, the work of a moment, and pairs well with that comfort food, superiority.

Still, even the most active of activists is already acknowledging that our task won’t be over for a long time, and we’re going to need something that burns a bit slower. I hasten to add that, while we must equip ourselves for a long-haul future, we have a yet lengthier past with which we must also deal. This crisis did not develop overnight, as if caused by some particular genius of Trump’s for villainy. This is the overflow of ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years. If we accomplish political goals without any mention of these things, they will only fester. The colonization of rural places, for instance: extracting resources from a place while systematizing contempt for its people. The abandonment of national politics to lobbyists and of local politics to the dogs. The abandonment of our minds to our screens. The utter lack of restraint on our consumerist desires, so that each side accuses the other of entitlement with great accuracy and total hypocrisy. And an extreme failure, on all sides, to know the oppressed, to sit with them in their pain, to share bread with them.

These things, of course, cost more than five minutes and 1000 words. These things rarely go viral.


But perhaps, I concede, the past is a discussion for another time. Perhaps what is before us, just today, is to excavate and banish our fear. If you are a Christian, you have no excuse for it; if you are not, let me assure you fear remains a hindrance to you. It is not naive to resist fear. You may be aware of a danger without giving that thing power over you. To the contrary, once fear is acknowledged and set aside, you are more agile, more perceptive, less prone to mistakes. Once fear is set aside, it clears the way for that most searing weapon: love.


I read an article several days ago about what to do, the basic actions that would be essential to resisting the extremism we’re witnessing. I found it wise and compelling in its simplicity—things like interacting with your representatives; seeking out reliable news sources; taking care of yourself (in the long term, going to bed on time and eating your vegetables); learning about privilege and oppression; getting to know the people in your community who stand to lose the most. And as the list went on, I realized that these were all things a truly excellent citizen would be doing regardless of who was in power. It was comforting and intimidating, I suppose, to realize that all anyone needs to do to stand up against a bullying President is become a truly excellent citizen.

What was, for me, conspicuously absent from the list was becoming aware of any new development within ten minutes of its occurrence; scrolling through Twitter with increasing indignation and despair; firing one-liners or articles at people on Facebook who would then be compelled to recognize the error of their ways. As the days have gone by, I’ve felt more and more antipathy towards the hot takes and the outrage machines and even the copied-and-pasted Bible verses. So much blame for our situation goes, in my mind, to our penchant for preferring the viral to the true; to our self-righteous armchair activism; to our willing deliverance of our attention to the antics of national figures, at the expense of understanding the goings-on in our own cities and states.

Do you want to drive out fear? It doesn’t happen when you get a good grasp of the situation from twitter or even from the news. It happens with love. Have the courage to love yourself without the safety blanket of self-righteousness. Have the courage to love someone else without assuming you already know who they are. Walk around your neighborhood and talk to the people you meet. Plan an uncomfortable dinner party: invite someone different from you. (Have lots of comfort food.) Call your representatives on behalf of someone else even though it inconveniences or terrifies you. Read about an issue you don’t want to face. Take up that habit you know you’re supposed to do—riding your bike places, donating to charity, praying for your enemies.

Pray. Pray more than you tweet. Pray before your political calls. Pray for the country. Pray for refugees. Pray before you eat. Pray before you buy. Pray with other people.

Read books. Gather with friends. Don’t think about doing good deeds; do them. Be aggressively present to your own life, your place and time.

Be still. The Lord will fight for you. The noise will take care of itself.

when being white hurts for once

It’s possible I didn’t get into a Ph.D. program because I’m white.

I don’t mean that as an excuse or a complaint or really even a literal statement. In reality, there are lots of reasons I didn’t get into a Ph.D. program, and my race isn’t among the top five you’d hear if I told you the story. But it was something I had to think about both during and after the application process: If it came down to a choice between me and someone of a minority race, all other things being exactly equal, the other person would “win.”

In theory, I think this is absolutely good and fitting for any academic program, especially in the liberal arts, and especially at the highest levels. In these fields, our personal backgrounds and perspectives influence our work even more than in others. Because of that, the academy is much, much poorer if it fails to cultivate a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. And the world is much, much poorer if it’s not represented well in academic and theological circles; people who can’t see themselves in the thinkers they’re hearing about often aren’t going to connect with the ideas. There’s really no one sitting around saying, “I can’t relate to this theology; I wish another wealthy white lady would write one.”

In theory, that makes sense. In practice, it’s not just nerve-wracking or hard to swallow. It hurts. It hurts, on a personal level, to hear that your perspective is valued less than someone else’s; and it hurts very practically, when you’re forced to compete for your dream, to know there is the potential that it will come down to something so far outside your control.

But just because it hurts me doesn’t make it any less right.

I’ve listened to the academic arguments and the personal pleas of my minority classmates and friends enough to know that they feel that same hurt every day of their lives. They don’t blame me as an individual and they certainly don’t revel in my pain, but they do ask me to see affirmative action as a conscious effort to reshape a world whose culture—whose unconscious efforts—often discount, demean, and defeat them.

This all came to mind when I read Dr. Christena Cleveland’s latest blog post, “How to be last: A practical theology for privileged people.” Of course, you should read it and then read it again, but here is the synopsis: Dr. Cleveland gives a brilliant retelling of the parable of the workers in the field—the one where some people work all day, and some work for only an hour, but everyone gets paid a full day’s wages. She points out that this parable illustrates that saying of Jesus: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This isn’t just a saying; it’s a vision of God’s kingdom. The Bible says (and social psychology happens to confirm) that in our sin-stricken world, where history and culture have conspired to place some people’s value, opportunities, lives, and comfort so far ahead of others’, putting everyone on a level playing field isn’t enough to bring about equality and justice. As she puts it,

We experience the kin-dom of heaven when people from oppressed groups lead and people from privileged groups follow…If you’re a privileged person, here’s what I have to say to you: You have an invaluable role to play — and that role is last. When you inhabit your role as last, you play a crucial part in forging and maintaining the equitable balance of the kin-dom of heaven. Furthermore, your freedom is in being last. Your pathway to a more just world is in being last. Your liberation from the shackles, alienation and dehumanization of privilege is in being last.

When someone says the first shall be last and the last shall be first it sounds like a nice saying. When someone says your place is to be last, you realize it’s not nice at all. It’s far more than nice; it’s redemptive, and redemption is a purifying fire, and it’s hard, and it hurts.

Some of the comments on the post reflect this hurt. There’s defensiveness, anger, and dismissal: running away from the fire. There’s calm debate: seeking to get around the fire. And there’s this:

My brain says This is absolutely what needs to take place.
My emotions say This is undignifying.

I think that’s a guy walking through the fire.

It sounds like this guy knows that what our culture calls “dignity” isn’t what the kingdom calls blessed. But we rarely know in our bones those conclusions we mentally assent to, no matter how firmly we think we believe them. We know in our bones what we experience. That’s why Jesus demands obedience: sometimes you can only learn the truth of something by doing it.When you’re used to measuring value and accomplishment in status, money, and power, it can take a long time to know the joy of undignity. When you’ve spent all your life being told you were meant to lead, it’s not immediately apparent how there could be freedom in following.

Since Trump was elected, the same word has been on a loop in my mind: humility, humility, humility. When someone becomes the leader of a country by bragging about wealth, power, deceit, and violence, humility has become a foreign concept. I can’t get away from that this Advent: they will know you are an alien when you worship a peasant baby as king. They will laugh at you when you pursue humility. They will despise you even as they secretly respect you when you begin to attain it.

Some of us get into the “social justice” game or “kingdom of God” talk because we think it will make us heroes. But God gets us into the game so it will make us humble, and so it will make us free. Work to free others long enough, you discover just how many of their iron chains are matched with your own invisible spider-web chains, chains you never noticed before you learned how to see. Clinging to “dignity” and even to dreams that revolve around achievement and status are two of those chains. Jesus, the teacher of hard sayings, is the one who frees us all from them. There are no heroes.

when singing is hard

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photo: Ben White

Dear bestfriend,

I knew that you knew that I knew that I failed to call you after the election out of nothing but sadness. Acedia, the desert monks called it, and later sloth: when you know what needs to be done and you just don’t. You wake up sad and let the long day ahead flatten you before it even really gets going. Most pitiful and boring of the seven deadly sins.

A tiny part of me tried not to think about you for too long, in the week after the election, because your work with refugees has always overwhelmed me with a fierce protective pride and I knew and I saw on facebook how deeply sad you were. You go every day and you chip away at the mortar between bricks and you slowly bring down the walls between these fleeing people and their new lives. We sat on the phone this weekend and wondered without saying it how so many could choose fear and blame and walls. We mourned for what our nation loses by rejecting refugees. And we fought down panic for those living in tents somewhere in between the loneliness of no country, in between a past of rubble and a future of more tents and more waiting.

We shared the little things we’ve done to try and move forward in the past month, but underneath all that, a terrible sense of smallness. Don’t just blame it on Trump, either; call it a quarter-life crisis. We have been doing our little things for a while now, and so much has only gotten worse. Maybe we should just acknowledge that we are suckers for trying to triage a world that seems bent on destroying itself. Maybe all we’ve been doing is making ourselves feel better about, or more righteous than, an objectively shitty place. We could be excused for deciding to leave behind our idealistic youth, over time knowing less and caring less and just donating a comfortable amount to charities that flatter us in their promotional materials.

Some days that seems like the only sane way out of despair. And here it is, the darkest time of the year, when it feels like we have more obligations than ever to people who don’t make us less lonely. How do you catch your breath when you can’t stop, and when every quiet moment threatens to drown you in visions of walls and wars?

I think what you do is you go see Messiah. It is one thing to be spiritual and go for walks or pray or bake things and try to meditatively get through whatever next thing. It is a more important thing right now to seize upon the miracle that Advent is here in a great grab at the most tangible celebration you can find, namely a three-hour symphony performance that you don’t get away from without worshiping Jesus. I can say nice things that you already know about Jesus coming as a baby, but what you really need is to sit yourself down to hear the angels proclaim the damn fool’s truth that that baby is the King.

This is no longer the time for a subtle piety, my darling. This is the time to declare ourselves the fools, the poor, the babes. This is the time to give out money to people on street corners, to spend an evening wrestling Christmas Snoopy onto the lawn, to stand still and weep at carols we’ve always known. Maybe in the past, those little things we did felt like nice auxiliary ways to be faithful alongside the real work of the important people and pragmatic programs that would ultimately make the world measurably better. Now that they might be all we have, we find out whether we ever really believed those acts of madness meant anything. Whether, really, we ever believed this ridiculous manger-story. Did we really think the Redemption of the world and the cosmic defeat of the Roman empire came as a wrinkly red baby to a teenage girl, his “reign” announced to farm hands and the bumbling old mystics of some sketchy-ass religion?

You go see Messiah, friend, you will believe. When someone sings you half the Bible you sit up and notice that we’re still in that story. Fill up with music and take heart, let yourself imagine that we really are halfway through one of the tales Sam asked Frodo to remember. If God came as a baby then the greatest lie is that the humble unnoticed doesn’t matter. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. And that is all that matters in the end. Go hear the story. Go as a child who never thought it audacious to cast themselves as Frodo. Go as a weary idealistic-but-cynical sucker. Go as the one who hungers to hear the prophet in that opening line, comfort ye my people. Sing through it, cry through it, hug the person next to you; remember that every time you waste your time in worship, give without getting, and let your heart crack open a little further, you are doing the holiest world-changing things that can be done.

When the powers that be declare war on the stranger and the least of these, the only way out of despair is to go a little mad. Look, love, this Christmas we could burrow into the comforting familiar and pretend like that will protect us from these long, long odds we face. But let’s not miss the chance to tell things on mountains, kiss the feet of peasant children, and thunder out like Zechariah, Who DARES despise the day of small things? He is coming, He is coming, He is coming.



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the good news about my racism

Senator John McCain, like every other Republican senator, supported the silencing this week of Elizabeth Warren from reading the words of Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions. His words: screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-10-43-38-am“I’m not sure you should read a letter that calls someone a racist.”

It confuses me why labeling someone as ‘racist’ is considered name-calling (leaving aside the question of why Jeff Sessions needs protection from name-calling [#snowflake?]). Calling someone a name like “dumb stinky loser” is about the opinion of the speaker. Calling someone a racist is about the fact of whether they are or are not a racist. And as long as we fear to name our disease, it will continue to poison everything we do.


It first occurred to me that I might be a racist when Mary Elizabeth Moore mentioned offhand that she is one. Dr. Moore is the Dumbledore of Boston University School of Theology—wise, compassionate, smart, talented, and selfless. It’s hard to describe the love people at BU cherish for her.

My first reaction when my teacher said this was a sort of pity. How could she have been convinced to adopt such a self-loathing posture? It is clear that she loves, respects, and often defers to people of color. She shouldn’t believe such a nasty thing about herself.

Besides, if she’s a racist, I’m a racist.

At its most benign, I gravitate towards people who look like me and away from those who don’t, on the bus, in the store, and at church.
At its most shameful, I wonder if black men in hoodies are drug dealers; I feel contempt towards black teenagers being loud on the train; I try to avoid the teller at the post office who I assume to be from India.
Are those things my “fault”? No. It’s human nature to want to associate with those who are similar to you, and even, perhaps, to be wary of those who aren’t.
Are those things still shameful? Are they still racist?
Yes.

When I learned about the civil rights movement in school, it seemed a lot of people bent over backwards to demonize racists. Racists were those who wanted to segregate hotels, buses, and schools, and they were evil for believing that others were inferior based on the color of their skin. These lessons made it seem that the struggle was over and the racists had disappeared as soon as they “lost” segregation. Even for a room full of white students sitting one block from the site of a lynching that spurred the forced exile of every black person from the county, the lessons made it easy to feel proud of ourselves for not thinking slavery or segregation were good ideas.

In their attempts to teach us the right answers, our schools taught us half-truths. Of course racism is deplorable and unacceptable. But of course also, tragically, it dwells within all of our hearts. The problem is, there’s no right answer on a multiple-choice test for facing the sickness inside ourselves. Our schools thought we could bury it and it would never make its way out of us; but that only shoved it closer to our cores, intertwined it with every piece of us as we grew. This happened not least because it was intertwined with everything else we were a part of, too: neighborhoods segregated through tradition and economic barriers; stereotypes as shortcuts for cheap laughs and cheap thrills; a culture that rewards values of white people like quietness, rationality, and procedure; rhetoric that convinces us the safety of white people depends on the surveillance and punishment of black people. We didn’t know these things were making us feel superior to others. It was just the way the world was. Meanwhile, outside our town that many black people still feared, perhaps we couldn’t know, as children, that black people were suffering from the legacies of concerted efforts to make and keep them unemployed, uneducated, poor, and imprisoned.

The grown-ups couldn’t bear to believe, let alone tell us, that the sickness was all of ours. Now we are the grown-ups, and we are deeply ill-equipped to deal with our sickness and theirs, the sickness that infects everything; but we have to try.

A thing about sickness is that it is never, ever, fair. It’s one of the main reasons we resist the diagnosis of racism. No one deserves something like that, twisting up their insides and skewing their well-intentioned lives off course.

I’m glad I had an education outside of my school. All my life I’ve been wrestling with the idea of original sin and the words of preachers who said I couldn’t be saved until I accepted my own depravity. It never struck me as a nice way to look at the world. I prefer the thought that Jesus, by “saving” me, just wants to make me even better than I already am. He isn’t here to mess up my life or my society too much. He likes me just fine and he wouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. That’s the line they took at school, after all: developing character is about improving yourself and being nice, not, like, examining things too deeply. Sin is “out there” and your job is just to not be a part of it.

Sin, too, in school, is something you either did or didn’t do, are or are not responsible for. This left us totally unequipped to talk about what it means to share responsibility for something you didn’t do. We don’t know how to talk about the ways we are all connected to one another by the ways we organize ourselves—the systems we live under—as well as the actions we directly take towards each other. We would rather believe that evils we didn’t personally create are someone else’s problem. We won’t face the fact that the someone else is the person who’s dying as a result.

I am grateful now to believe in confession, repentance, salvation, and the hard work of healing. Here it is, y’all, here is the good news about racism: we were all born to be better. We were made to receive the love of God and to be with other people. There is no limit to the goodness you and I are meant to behold and to reflect, no end to the joy and love we can spread. And at the very same time we are born into a world that makes this impossible for us. One moment it threatens us and turns us ferocious out of self-preservation; the next it flatters us and makes us bloated with greed. Now we know we are victims of unfairness but we also know, in our moments alone, that we have become perpetrators. We remember moments of pure cruelty, cowardice, selfishness, and deceit. We think of them, and we hide.

But God comes for us. God always comes for us. She sees and she weeps for the destruction we have wrought, but she also sees through the mud we’ve crawled in and the pathetic armor we’ve built to who we really are: she knows our little lights, dimmed, flickering beneath so many layers of sin and despair. And this God is not some princess, gingerly pinching her prize by the nape of the neck to lift it out of the mud. This God still loves the whole swamp and once she is invited, she wades, swims, without hesitation straight through the sticky mud to embrace us: no lectures, no punishments. Only a whisper: this will hurt. But I am with you. I am always, always with you.

But you have to call out from where you are. You have to know that you are drowning in the swamp. You have to let it be true that you will always be both sinner and saint—always rooting out that illness.

Our light could flare out, pierce through the dim, and our patch of the swamp could become a garden. We could live with joy and without fear and without condemnation. But there is no healing without pain, no growth without humility.

We can go on drowning in inequality, violence, and an utter failure to exercise compassion or understanding for one another. Or we can cry out for rescue.

I think it will look like one small, brave, wavering voice at a time.
I am a racist, and I want to be healed.

 

the good news for seminarians

In the weeks before finals, when you are wrung out, too often the litany of bad news reigns. But it seems today is my day to have faith for all of us; so let me shout for you the good news.

Isn’t it easy to believe, here in the springtime, that the world is shot through with miracle? Count your miracles, friends, as if your life depended on it, for surely it does – depends on earth, wind, water, depends on food become effort become muscle, depends, God knows, on coffee and midnight slaphappy laughter. Count the cheap microwave life that you’ll miss in fifteen years and find yourself crying, why me? How did I earn such riches?

I hope it is easy, here in the springtime, to know the world itself is good news, this most extravagant festival of beauty. That even if God were always and only a child, fashioning bright baubles in space and dropping them behind – never to return – it would be right to give God thanks and praise.

And yet we have found God with us, with all of us, murdering brothers and exiled slave women, idolaters, grumbling nomad-people and mourners of a defeated nation. Always God remains one more day, weaving the threads of ruined lives into something that looks like hope. Even if these were only marvelous stories from a far-away people in a time of magic, do they not speak beauty and mystery enough to keep us secretly searching for signs of this God? Are they not just strange and startling enough – transcending their own culture in all the oddest places – to convince us non-believers? Somewhere in our ancient child-hearts, we still know wonder.

But you will say I have meandered into glibness. What if, you will say, the great God dies? What if your country, your people, the land from which you were formed, become occupied by God’s own enemies? What if 400 years pass without a prophet?

I don’t know. For the suddenly light-drenched, here in the springtime, it is too easy to tell the still winter-laden to wait. I suppose I would say to get up again tomorrow, make your little breakfast, and say the prayers anyhow. Tell the old stories over and try, only try, to wait, for I AM will be with you. God will be with you. God loves you too much to stay out of it. God is too big not to care for all the little things; and at Christmas, God joined the project for once and for all.

Do you ever wonder why Jesus wept? If he knew he had come to fix this Lazarus-dying business, why stop and cry? Yet he arrived at Bethany, he collided with the grief of Mary and Martha, and suddenly the ice-cold truth washed over him: Lazarus is dead.

What if Jesus found himself doubting, there at Bethany? What if everything he said to Mary and Martha about faith, he was really saying to himself? I wonder if he did not discover finitude in that moment, in the really true death of the one he loved – shut up behind a rock together with his spirit, his laugh, the way he whistled in the mornings and spoke his sentences slow, brow furrowed, when he was thinking. All gone, just stolen by disease, no sense to it; I wonder if Jesus, encountering the magnitude of this thing, was not stricken with a sick fear: I am a lunatic after all.

He was perturbed. “Take me to him,” he said; and he wanted to stride confidently ahead of his disciples, but he found himself stumbling through his tears, desperate to make his way to his best friend. “Take away the stone,” he said, only because he had thought this was why he’d come so late.
“But Jesus…” Martha spoke gently, in her sensible way –
“Take away the stone!” Jesus said, driven on by Spirit’s mission and the mad fire, fighting helplessness, in his eyes. He prayed as they struggled against the rock: “Father, I know that you hear me. I know that you hear me. Hear me.”

They finished with the stone. Did the stench she had spoken of roll out over them all? Did Jesus look into that black cave, trembling, staring down the darkness that had swallowed Lazarus with such indifference? Fists clenched, desperately, Father, hear me, then, “Lazarus! Come out!” – his lurching, strangled cry of grief silenced the murmuring crowd.

And Jesus waited. He had done what Spirit had brought him to do, and now the command was out of him. He stood before the blackness; he began to feel foolish and another rising sickness battled the fast-waning hope inside him.

Until, by the grace of God, Lazarus came out.

Before the crowd could be confused, could be frightened or appalled at this prank, Jesus’ dying hope heard the footsteps first. “Unbind him!” Jesus shouted. “He is free”, Jesus wept.

I think Lazarus was freed by Jesus’ compassion. We are all freed by Jesus’ tears; there is no pain God has not felt. Creation is God’s wound – she weeps for the abused, for the sick, the hopeless, the tired. She weeps for mountains leveled by greed for coal, for people hollowed out by lust for money, for those who have lost their best friends. And dare I say that God has felt the pain of the small – that God can weep, too, for lost teddy bears, college rejection letters, homes we loved – all the things we think we should be bigger than? I think this is grace, that God has been small with us.

Seminarians, you are not so big. And that is OK. The voices that tell you you are not big enough, not good enough, not politically correct enough, not suspicious enough, not worried enough, not smart enough, not busy enough – they are not humble. They are not grace. Grace does not shame. Grace gives gifts.

It is true that God wants holiness. It is also true that God gives holiness. Holiness is grace; it is freedom – freedom from the patterns of this world. Yes, it takes courage, effort, discernment, and time. But God has lots of these, and you have only a little. Will you keep trying to muster them, or will you simply ask for them? Will you let yourself be small? Will you let others carry these burdens with you? If you cannot let yourself be small, you will never excuse others their smallness.

We hear much bad news in seminary. And it is sometimes important to know. But only God can absorb all the world’s bad news. And only God can transform it into good. For creation is God’s million wounds, and yet it is, ten times over, her delight. She holds it; she sings over it; she sings over you with joy in all that you are, for you are hers, and she is with you. Even before we finally see life rising out of the darkness and death, God is with our shrinking doubting band of faith-in-resurrection people.

The good news – the reason you are here, I hope – is that I AM made the universe, and God loves it, and God loves you. I AM is with us, healing us, and God will make all the small things new.

crowds are made up of people

Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

I never noticed the crowd before.

I always thought Jesus just raised the widow’s son because he had nothing better to do. Because he knew he was supposed to, maybe. Because it was his job.

But this is different. Jesus had very important things to do – he was leading a crowd to a town! They must have been jostling, talking, kids running around, people asking questions – “Rabbi!’ “Rabbi!” – with the disciples there, too, blundering about in all their earnestness like always.

If I were leading a crowd somewhere, we would give a funeral a wide berth. People died all the time. People died young all the time. There was no reason for the two crowds to meet.

Jesus, though – Jesus didn’t see a funeral. He didn’t see a crowd. He saw one woman, whose last hope for a family had been stripped from her. He watched her replaying scenes from her son’s life, helpless to stop reliving a happiness she would never know again.

And he had compassion on her. And he stopped. And he gave him back to his mother. Did he even think about what chaos must have ensued?

Zacchaeus couldn’t see over the crowd, but he didn’t go home. The professional in his suit and tie climbed a tree instead; and it must have been a relief to be invisible for a while.

Why did Jesus stop? Didn’t Zacchaeus have some fairly first-world problems? The text doesn’t say what made him single out the sinner in the tall tree; but we know he was always looking, searching out people in pain, people who sought him, people whose sin was bearing down hard on them. The Spirit has a way of calling attention to the people on the edges.

Jesus and crowds have a strange relationship. He alternately has compassion on them and feeds them, alienates them with his weird teachings, confuses them on purpose with impenetrable stories, weeps for them, shows vague disdain and disinterest in them, tries to get away from them, is worshipped by them, seems wearied by them, blesses their children.

This used to confuse me. But my own life has become much more crowded in the past year as an “adult”. I have a larger network of shallower relationships than I used to. Graduation expands one’s peer group vastly. And I live and work near the middle of a city, surrounded by crowds and interacting regularly with hundreds of people experiencing various levels of poverty.

It is exhausting.

Now I get Jesus’ ministry a lot more than I used to, and I’m also more intimidated by it, because even though it’s wiser, it’s not any easier. It’s not easy to let the crowd be and say and do what they will while you minister to one person at a time.

How did he stay open to these individuals’ needs, to their pain, when the needs and follies and demands of the crowd are so blindingly overwhelming?

And how did he so often stand against the crowd… precisely because of his love for the crowd?

I don’t often know; I rarely feel that I succeed. Sometimes circumstances absolutely prevent me from spending any time on the more intimate relationships that make this work worthwhile. And sometimes I follow the crowd in the wrong direction because I just can’t fight the current anymore.

But I find myself looking harder for the lost and lonely, for the rock-bottomers and the desperate-for-a-glimpse tree-sitters. I find myself throwing away efficiency and the crowd’s demands to reinstate compassion, following my heart when it goes out from me to offer the unbusinesslike moment of rest, the hand on the shoulder, the gift of my full attention.

And when it is still all too much, when I get overwhelmed or make mistakes or need to get away, there is the friend, the phone call, the timely Scripture or the whisper of the Spirit bearing rest, and I see Jesus walking through the crowd toward me.

 

fall on your knees

This is a repost from the summer, with some new reflections added as it struck me again this Advent.

Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. [Matthew 26]

I love the fact that the Christian year begins with Advent. This year, I feel especially connected to this season; in moving to a new place, I have spent a lot of time waiting and praying for God to show up.

The Jewish community had waited hundreds of years for its Messiah. But when he finally comes along and goes, “Oh, hey, I’m the Messiah,” their leaders get all outraged and execute him. They’re not even like, “Whoa, that guy is crazy,” or “Hmm, are you sure about that?” They are clothes-destroyingly infuriated.

I have a hard time imagining the Pharisees as the Ultimate Evil, the way they’re always depicted in sermons and stuff. Maybe I’m just a contrary person, but I also have this thing where I don’t like one-dimensional labels for real human beings. So, the Pharisees – kind of crappy people? Probably. Ultimate Evil? Nnnnnno.

I don’t think the Pharisees were such big liars that they were only pretending to expect the Messiah. But they wanted their own kind of Messiah; there was a script in their heads for how this thing would go down. The Messiah would restore the nation of Israel to the nation-state of Israel. He wouldn’t pay taxes or help centurions; he would take names and throw down, rout the Romans and make Israel a theocracy once more. And who better to assist in the government of a theocracy than the faithful keepers of the Torah?

A Messiah who did not legitimize or increase their own power was entirely outside the Pharisees’ frame of reference, because they had stopped worshipping a God who was “slow to anger and abounding in love” in favor of worshipping the Law. They only understood the power of coercion, of religious threats and expensive vocabulary and alliance with governing swords – so they were baffled by Jesus’ power of love, his influence by compassion, his simply-worded summation of the Law and the Prophets, his foolish donkey rides. And if there’s one thing that makes academics angry, it’s the inability to understand. How could they watch their people flock to this penniless, child-honoring wanderer and not feel affronted? After all, anyone who undermined and insulted the Sanhedrin, insulted God: blasphemy.

Jesus’ message and ministry were always simple but never easy. He made it clear that God’s standards for holiness are nothing short of perfection [“love your neighbor as yourself”], but when the time came he did not condemn sinners. The God-man himself is a paradox and at every turn in the Gospels, the paradoxes only compound and multiply.  So here is the question for the scholar, for every person who wants to walk humbly: are you waiting for the true Messiah? Because we always encounter him again and again, as long as we are willing to believe the Living God as he is.
If my Messiah never forces me to confront paradox;
If he always serves my interests;
If he never surprises me;
If he would never, ever ask me to give all I had to the poor;
If he would exercise his right to cast the first stone;
If he prioritizes the powerful over the needy;
If he has no compassion for the Pharisees;
If he did not die for everyone;
If he never asks for more than I think I can give;
if I’ve stopped waiting for him to reveal himself because I think I’ve already grasped him,

then I’ve constructed a false idol, and I do not worship Jesus Christ at all.

The Christian year begins with Advent – with waiting. Stillness. A desire to encounter God in all God’s glory.

And then – somehow we forget every time – it turns out that all along we were awaiting the birth of a very poor woman’s not-really-legitimate child. That he can be found in the face of a child in a food pantry line. That he inspires unhoped-for reconciliation with a housemate. That he is among and within The Liberals and The Conservatives.

This Christmas, may you encounter the God who surprises.

unexpected messiah

62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered.
[Matthew 26]

I have a hard time imagining the Pharisees as the Ultimate Evil, the way they’re always depicted in sermons and stuff. Maybe I’m just a contrary person, but I also have this thing where I don’t like one-dimensional labels for real human beings. So, the Pharisees – kind of crappy people? Probably. Ultimate Evil? Nnnnnno.

Also, to get real with you, the Pharisees were religious scholars. I am/intend to be a religious scholar. And if we’re not careful, oversimplifying the Pharisees’ role in the story can lead to something like this:
1. The Pharisees learned too much and thought they were better than everyone else.
2. Jesus opposed them and they killed him.
3. We should all learn as little as possible.
I’ve heard way too many versions, subtle or overt, of this argument to get behind the wholesale demonization of the Jewish leaders. But a rejection of this mindset leaves a bit of a hole in the story. I mean, if they didn’t hate Jesus because they hated Jesus, if they didn’t lie because they were born liars – why did they oppose the Christ?

After all, the Jewish community had waited hundreds of years for its Messiah. So when he finally comes along and goes, “Oh, hey, I’m the Messiah,” their leaders get all outraged and execute him. They’re not even like, “Whoa, that guy is crazy,” or “Hmm, are you sure about that?” They are clothes-destroyingly infuriated.

I don’t think the Pharisees were such big liars that they were only pretending to expect the Messiah. But they wanted their own kind of Messiah; there was a script in their heads for how this thing would go down. The Messiah would restore the nation of Israel to the nation-state of Israel. He wouldn’t pay taxes or help centurions; he would take names and throw down, rout the Romans and make Israel a theocracy once more. And who better to assist in the government of a theocracy than the faithful keepers of the Torah?

A Messiah who did not legitimize or increase their own power was entirely outside the Pharisees’ frame of reference, because they had stopped worshipping a God who was “slow to anger and abounding in love” in favor of worshipping the Law. They only understood the power of coercion, of religious threats and expensive vocabulary and alliance with governing swords – so they were baffled by Jesus’ power of love, his influence by compassion, his simply-worded summation of the Law and the Prophets, his foolish donkey rides. And if there’s one thing that makes academics angry, it’s the inability to understand. How could they watch their people flock to this penniless, child-honoring wanderer and not feel affronted? After all, anyone who undermined and insulted the Sanhedrin, insulted God: blasphemy.

Jesus’ message and ministry were always simple but never easy. He made it clear that God’s standards for holiness are nothing short of perfection [“love your neighbor as yourself”], but when the time came he did not condemn sinners. The God-man himself is a paradox and at every turn in the Gospels, the paradoxes only compound and multiply.  So here is the question for the scholar, for every person who wants to walk humbly: are you waiting for the true Messiah? Because we always encounter him again and again, as long as we are willing to believe the Living God as he is.
If my Messiah never forces me to confront paradox;
If he always serves my interests;
If he never surprises me;
If he would never, ever ask me to give all I had to the poor;
If he would exercise his right to cast the first stone;
If he prioritizes the powerful over the needy;
If he has no compassion for the Pharisees;
If he did not die for everyone;
If he never asks for more than I think I can give;
if I’ve stopped waiting for him to reveal himself because I think I’ve already grasped him, 

then I’ve constructed a false idol, and I do not worship Jesus Christ at all.

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